Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! Oh, the irony.
Friends and colleagues are furiously sending me the link to Tipping Point author, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker piece, “Small Change: why the revolution will not be tweeted.” Throughout the article. the author compares and contrasts the high-risk activism of 1960s Civil Rights activists with that of contemporary individuals using online tools to complete low-risk activism.
Always an astute observer of the obvious, Gladwell slays the nonexistent voices who are insisting that social networks are all the organizing activists need these days. Save Darfur activists are not risking life and limb at Woolworth lunch counters, proving that Twitter has ruined activism.
This fact certainly has nothing to do with the reality that today’s activists are often campaigning on issues effecting people in far away lands, and direct action as opposed to consistent campaigning would make no sense.
The folly of Gladwell’s argument can be found in one paragraph, after he describes an email campaign started by a group of friends to find a bone marrow donor of South Asian descent for their ailing colleague:
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.
Now look at that last sentence again, “Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” It is not the “Social network” that lessened the “level of motivation that participation requires,” it is the goal of the campaign. The goal of the campaign was to find a suitable bone marrow donor for their friend, not overturn segregation laws in the South. How does he know if those who signed up to the bone marrow registry would join the Woolworth’s protest or march in Selma? He does not know anymore than I do. Their willingness to take part in one campaign has no bearing on their willingness to take part in another, “high risk” activity. Nobody, not even us “Evangelists of social media,” believe that “signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.” Taking part in low-risk activism through weak ties no more keeps people from taking part in high-risk activism, than the opposite. In other words, would the Greensboro activists not have sat at the lunch counter if they had given a dollar to the Salvation Army tin (low-risk) the day before? Allow me to inverse Gladwell’s own logic: The failure of the Greensboro students to donate an ounce of bone marrow proves that the kind of offline organizing practiced in the Civil Rights movement is ineffective.
Gladwell continues his attack by pointing out that Save Darfur has a low level of giving to the campaign relative to its high number of Facebook fans. He does not take the time to understand that donations are not what the campaign calls for, or the situation requires. Save Darfur motivates citizens to demand political action from elected officials, it does not send aid to Darfur. Nor does it foolishly ask people to go to Darfur and clumsily act as human-shields. The fact that people are not doing that is not evidence of Facebook’s failings, but the campaign organizers’ strategy.
I received three emails yesterday from leading campaigning organizations. One from Save Darfur asked me to take 60 seconds and send a message to President Obama asking him to show leadership when heads of state meet to discuss Sudan in a few days. An email from Avaaz supported joining a Global Work Party as part of the 10:10:10 day of action (Over 6,000 events are scheduled in the scary real world…using online tools!). Finally, ONE thanked supporters for demanding Obama commit the needed money to the Global Fund. Over 85,000 took action. Yes, they did not put their lives on the line and sit in for days facing arrest or beating. This was not due to the existence of social networks, but because it would not have been an effective strategy. One could certainly argue that these campaigns could be more effective with high-risk direct action, but that is not an argument for or against social networks, but about the type of activism that has the most impact when dealing with geopolitical change movements.
I’m preparing a more coherent post on Gladwell’s oversimplification, but this edition of FMC Wire offers up a few links to refute Small Change, or at least get you and Malcolm thinking.
- Cellphones role in activism in Africa is threatened
CS Monitor examines how government investigators forced cell phone companies to shut off service in an effort to thwart protesters in Maputo. Mobile phone penetration is greater than TV on the continent and a trend of blocking service could severely hamper activists across Africa. Thank, God mobile phones did not exist in the 60′s! Right, Malcolm?
- Can Twitter lead people to the streets?
Timothy B. Lee explains the difference between dedicated activists and the sympathetic populous needed for any movement to succeed. (Paying attention Prof. Gladwell?) Writing as part of a New York Times debate series, Lee notes that the advent of TV was what allowed the hardcore activists to be seen in action and the brutal conditions they faced understood by sympathetic Northerners who would rally to the cause — at varying levels of commitment of course. Lee slaps down Gladwell with this single paragraph:
No social movement can succeed without activists willing to take serious risks for their cause. But other factors are also important. These include a critical mass of ordinary citizens who are at least sympathetic to, if not yet actively supportive of, the activist’s cause, and a strategy to reach and persuade as many of those citizens as possible. What makes the Internet revolutionary is not just that it makes it easier for activists to communicate with one another, but that it provides them with powerful new tools for informing and persuading their fellow citizens.
- In China, even weak ties are crucial
Michael Anti reminds us that there are places in the world, like China, where direct action is not an option and even the slightest movement of free information can threaten the government’s official line. While Anti does not mention other services, Gladwell shows his limited understanding of social media by sticking to Twitter and Facebook, but nearly 400 million Chinese are online and avidly use MSN Messenger and QQ for instant messaging. IM has opened up a whole new stream of communication and many users find ways to skirt the Great Firewall and communicate openly. Do these “weak ties” portend 400 million activists staring down tanks in Tienanmen Square: of course not. But Gladwell knows that information is power and online connections can bolster or create strong offline ties.
- Gladwell on social media and activism
Alexis Madrigal sees some value in Gladwell’s writing, but notices that he displays a fundamental misunderstanding of Twitter. Gladwell also makes the mistake of seeing “weak ties,” and “strong ties,” as polar opposites. In fact, the reality is that strong ties exist within large pools of weak ties. And Madrigal, like thousands of others has formed new strong connections through Twitter. The critical mass on Twitter gives users a new way to find kindred spirits and then actually meet up with them. Maybe not at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, but raising $1.2 million in a year is not so bad — Twestival anyone?Madrigal also takes issue with Gladwell’s determination that social networks are bad for organizing, because they are “networks,” and not, “hierarchies.” Several open source software platforms are developed by massive networks and a small steering group (Firefox, Linux, Drupal, Wikipedia). Gladwell states that the Montgomery Bus Boycott could not be organized by a “wiki-boycott.” I’m not sure exactly what Gladwell means, but ultimately he is simply stating that a wiki is the wrong organizing tool for a boycott or any type of major activism. Great. Now, who exactly is using a wiki for this purpose? It’s like arguing that a lawn mower is useless for cutting hair, therefore lawn mowers are overrated. Once again, Gladwell’s logic cuts through the argument nobody is making; he wins this round…against himself.